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Student presidency first, global advocacy second

An international Chinese UTSC student reviews Chemi Lhamo’s election
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During and after the 2019 Scarborough Campus Students’ Union (SCSU) election, President-elect Chemi Lhamo was attacked by an online harassment campaign due to her pro-Tibetan independence activism. The backlash included questioning her integrity and viability as SCSU president-elect and a petition that called for the nullification of her election.

There is no question that Lhamo’s election is legitimate and that harassment of this kind is abhorrent and unacceptable. However, the firestorm raises an important question about the extent to which advocates and activists who exert pressure on political systems from the outside to advance a particular cause can subsequently become holders of political power on the inside. This is especially the case when that particular cause is divisive for the electorate.

Student union executives are expected to represent all students. They may also participate in advocacy, but only so long as the issue in question is in the ‘student interest,’ defined by overwhelming student support. For example, most can back the movement for more affordable tuition. But publicly embracing advocacy on a highly contentious and global issue is both unnecessary since the president is only mandated to address local student issues, and risky, as it might serve to polarize the campus and alienate certain groups on campus.

This is why, for example, student unions tend to stay away from the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement. Picking a side will inevitably alienate some students.

Take also, for example, former University of Toronto Students’ Union Vice-President University Affairs Cassandra Williams, who was criticized for actively taking a stand against Professor Jordan Peterson and Students in Support of Free Speech in fall 2016, even though the campus was clearly split over the free speech issue.

The issue with Lhamo is not her Tibetan identity in and of itself. It is the fact that a significant pro-Tibetan advocacy role preceded and continued to be a talking point in her presidential campaign. Through the campaign period, she has made clear how her identity as a stateless Tibetan refugee informs her pro-representation platform policy. In an interview with The Underground, she said that the “skills that she had learned from her Tibetan community in Toronto could transfer to her professional positions at the union.”

Lhamo had also chosen to conspicuously wear traditional Tibetan cultural clothing at The Underground’s debate, in which she had also discussed her past as a refugee. In effect, she chose to unnecessarily conflate her identity with her bid for the presidency.

Lhamo of course has a right to speak about and express her Tibetan identity in her personal life and advocacy work. But being a public figure and running for public office requires that she frame her campaign in a way that appeals to the sensitivities of as many students as possible. She is required to have widespread trust and support from UTSC students as SCSU president-elect.

Hence her decision to campaign as a Tibetan refugee and advocate, rather than on strictly her qualifications and ideas as a UTSC student or as the current VP Equity, reflects an intentional political calculation: that the significant international Chinese population at UTSC is not a relevant constituency for her presidency.

Tibetan independence activism is particularly offensive to international Chinese students because preserving China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity is of immense importance to their national identity — just as separatist movements are for any nation-state. These students may also have a legitimately different view of the Tibetan situation compared to Lhamo. Her advocacy for independence is too radical even for the Dalai Lama, who only supports autonomy.

Such students may just want to complete their studies on a campus where the president does not unnecessarily take a stand on a contentious global issue that is so close to home. In sum, given her record, it can be difficult to believe that Lhamo will simply set aside her past advocacy work and fulfil the presidency impartially.

Some therefore fear that Lhamo’s activism will inform her presidential decisions. She may very well use the SCSU platform to advocate for Tibetan independence. This raises the question of whether her ability to represent and serve the needs of all students, including international Chinese students, will be compromised.

It must be clarified, however, that the harassment campaign against Lhamo is not entirely the product of students from UTSC. My understanding is that many international Chinese students, like me, accept the diversity of this campus and are not staunchly opposed to her presidency. It is offensive that all international Chinese students at U of T are now being negatively framed and associated with the harassment campaign.

Some accuse us of being incompatible with Canadian values of democracy or free speech and collectively advancing the political agenda of the Chinese government. Lhamo herself has also accused the Chinese government of being responsible for the harassment without any evidence. Such rhetoric only reinforces anti-Chinese hate and exacerbates division.

While Lhamo has responded that she does not plan to make Tibet a focus in her presidency, she must take action to redress her choices and statements as a candidate and now president-elect. Lhamo must make sure that she reaches out to and engages with international Chinese students — as a part of the general international student community — to reassure them that their feelings and needs are no less important to her than any other students’. Following an extremely dramatic and divisive election, the president-elect must first and foremost unite all students at UTSC.

At the same time, the international Chinese students at UTSC who do oppose Lhamo’s presidency should understand that Lhamo’s election is legitimate and that they should correspondingly voice their outrage through legitimate means. This means engagement with the SCSU electoral process — not through harassment or groundless petitions to reverse her election victory. They should vote or run for leadership to ensure that their interests and needs are reflected in the SCSU.

Unfortunately, international students are currently not able to hold executive office, which requires a restricted course load, because their student visas require a full course load. The SCSU under Lhamo could take an important step for inclusion by reforming this policy, as was suggested by the SCSYou slate in this year’s election.

A diverse campus like UTSC is likely to yield diverse leaders who are passionate and advocate for their communities. But advocacy complicates the role of the presidency: the latter requires representing and uniting all students for a common interest, which may inevitably conflict with particular interest of the former.

The sense of alienation that international Chinese students feel is real. Given our significant population at U of T, it is important that student leaders behave and speak in such a way that shows regard for us. Hopefully for Lhamo, global advocacy comes second to student presidency.

Michael Phoon is a second-year Journalism student at UTSC. He is The Varsity’s UTSC Affairs Columnist.